Sunday, September 21, 2008

Diary - Landscape Design Concepts

Basic Landscape Design Concepts

My perfect garden will employ design techniques I have learned over the last 10 years. I should back up and confess some of the mistakes I made when I first created my Zone 5 garden 20 years ago.
First, I was so thrilled to have a third of an acre, I planned monstrous perennial beds. Even though they were lovely in early summer, it always seemed as if something was missing and wrong. I couldn’t pin it down at first but later I realized that my garden “floated”! It had no anchors, no grounding, no strong design features to give it weight.
The more I learned and read and studied, I realized that I should have planned and incorporated a lot of architectural features and trees, conifers and shrubs before even buying my first perennial!!
So here are some basics I plan to employ in my next “perfect” garden.

By nature, I am more of a Horticulturalist than a landscape “architect”. I am much more excited and enthused about the newest form of “Heuchera” than I am about slopes, grades and drainage. But architectural details and knowledge can form a solid basis for a well-balanced, well-proportioned garden that’s always a joy to look at regardless of the season. (I learned this after having the disastrous “floating” garden of 1988-2001.)

Garden Design books stress many important principles – scale, proportion, space, line, form, texture, etc. etc. I will discuss some of these briefly later but to simplify things, let me go back to my landscape designer days to see how I used to design gardens for my customers.

In my first interview with clients, I asked them a very basic question:
What did they want?
Did they want a yard that looked nice but was relatively low in maintenance or were they avid gardeners? Were interesting plants important to them – would they take care of them? Did they have children or pets? Did the backyard need to be functional such as being a play space or a dog run? Did they travel a lot in the summer or have a cottage? If so, who would take care of their property when they were gone? Did they need privacy from their neighbours? Was there an eyesore they wanted to hide?

What was their soil like – loam or sand or clay? What was their budget? Did they want instant results or would they prefer a Five Year Plan, where they could install sections of the new garden as their budget allowed?

So, let’s pretend that I’m the client now and I’ll ask myself the same questions:
What do I want?
I want a lovely, well-balanced look that incorporates hardscape (paving, fences, walls) with softscape (plant material).
I want a patio or deck to sit on for meals and relaxing with family and friends.
I want structure: I’d love an arbour, a bench, walkways, natural-looking rocks, and a fence ( if we choose a retirement house in an urban setting) or shrubbery as a fence ( if we choose country property.)
I won’t forget to incorporate outdoor lighting for many reasons: to beautify the garden at night, to spotlight interesting plants, to illuminate walkways and to provide security.

So now I have a general idea of the parts that will make up the whole. How do I go about putting it all together?
The first thing I always did was a plan on paper.
I know what you’re thinking – come on! Who has time to do that? Or, I can’t draw! How can I make a plan on paper turn into a reality? Well – there are a few ways: hire a landscape architect (expensive) or a landscape designer (cheaper) to do this for you.
Determined to do this yourself? OK try this:
Do a general site survey (If you still have the legal survey of your property including the house, this is a huge head start.)
A site survey should include:
a) the house – including doors and windows including which direction they open
b) existing structural features – drains, vents, downspouts, gas and water meters, taps, steps and walls
c) boundaries
d) existing shrubs and trees, especially those you wish to keep
e) water – pools, ponds, streams or lakes
f) existing plants
g) changes in level – slopes, etc.
h) drainage – septic tanks, manholes, low spots
i) North – where is north on the property?
j) features that may affect landscape – eg. A neighbour’s overhanging tree
k) miscellaneous – views in and out, direction of prevailing winds, soil type and ph factor
I used to bring a Polaroid camera to jobs. Even though I thought I did a thorough survey, drawing and measurement, nothing brought details back to me like a photograph. Now with digital photography, this would be even easier.
OK – so now you’ve drawn your present property onto (graph) paper (or if you’re really avid or talented, incorporated it into a computer software programme)
What now?
Well – let’s analyze what you’ve got and what you want.
For example, you’ve learned or become aware of the fact that
(a) you have trees that were badly damaged in an ice storm last winter
a. What to do? Make a note to purchase and plant new trees, especially native ones that may be hardier
(b) You’ve recently installed a swimming pool but there’s no where to sit
a. What to do? Plan on installing a patio or deck large enough to accommodate family and friends.
(c) You have a patchy lawn and grass under a few huge maple trees
a. What to do? Re-work the area into a bed filled with drought-resistant ground cover or have the tree branches thinned by a reputable tree service.

See where I’m going here?
You need to see what’s good, what could be better and what needs fixing.
When you figure it out, decide on your time and budget and then do it yourself or pay someone to do it for you!

A few excellent points to keep in mind when designing are:
(a) think of your yard as an extension of your house – an “outside” room if you will. If you have a great ceramic floor in the kitchen and a sliding door, consider having a patio that echoes the size of tiles and colour.
(b) if you have a great bay or bow window in the family room, plant wonderful shrubs and trees in the yard that change colours as the seasons change. Set up a seating area in the room so it’s easy to look outside and enjoy the view.
(c) to carry the concept further, think of the yard as having a floor, walls and a ceiling ( just like a house!)
i. The Floor could be a lawn or ground cover or a hardscape – concrete, flagstone or wood
ii. The Walls could be plants (like a hedge or shrubs) or hardscape (a wall or fence). They can define boundaries, provide privacy, hide ugly features and separate one garden area from another
iii. The Ceiling. The sky is actually the ceiling but overhead structures and trees are also a part of it. Trees should be hardy to your area and zone, have architectural structure and perhaps seasonal colour. Vines can also be part of a ceiling as well as pergolas, arbours and cloth awnings.

Other important Elements of Design

Landscape Design books and courses offer terrific explanations of complicated design concepts much better than I can, I’m sure. But I would like to highlight a few that I’m comfortable explaining in layman’s terms:

Both hardscape and softscape create line in a landscape. Lines can be curved or straight, horizontal or vertical.
Curved lines have a freer, more casual, natural feel and are often perfect for sharp angled, vertical lines of a house.
Straight lines in a landscape often lend a formal look and atmosphere.
All good designs have a balance between vertical and horizontal lines.
I always found that garden beds formed in natural, soft curves soften the harsh vertical lines of most modern homes. How to curve these in an attractive and proportionate way was hit-and-miss until I read John and Carol Grant’s book Garden Design Illustrated. The most important factors I learned here was how to coordinate curves and drifts (p.105-111). After studying this chapter and practicing time after time, I developed my own style using Grant’s principles. Example: “The rule, then, is that curves and contour lines should be either parallel or at right angles.” If this book is out of print, try your local library. I found it very helpful.

The 3D shapes of a landscape are its Forms. Trees, shrubs and perennials may be upright, spreading, rounded, triangular or irregular. Use these in variation to achieve interesting and pleasing groupings (eg. a small rounded evergreen in a front of a larger triangular one.)

Combine and contrast textures! If you contrast too much, your landscape can look fussy and busy, making the eye tired. On the other hand, too much of one texture becomes monotonous. A pleasing combination of both will result in better balance.

Colour comes from plants or hardscape. I found many clients had favourite colours and wanted me to use them “no matter what!” I prefer to blend landscape colours with the brick of the house, for instance. Many clients had warm-toned brick (terracotta, gold tones) but only liked pink and blue as plant colours. I was able to persuade some of them to switch to gold, orange, yellow and light green plants that would harmonize with the brick colours, producing a peaceful overall effect. But those who insisted on having the soft pastels of pink, mauve and blue clash with the brick must have been happy with the end result, but I certainly wasn’t. My advice is to stay in the colour groups that match your brick and mortar. For instance stay in the warm group (red, yellow, orange, gold) or cool group (blue, violet, purple, silver), especially in the front yard. You can bend the rules a bit more in the backyard.

Stand well back from the house and try to determine the heavy and light side of the structure. If you have a “stick-out” garage, it’s simple: the garage side is the heavy side of the house. Therefore, make the larger curve of the beds on the opposite side and you will achieve balance. I know this is extremely simplified, but perhaps because of that, it’s easier to understand. Other examples could be a large tree on one side vs. smaller shrubs on the right. Or a garden structure on one side vs. a large tree. Your eye will tell you if everything seems balanced.

Scale and Proportion
Think small house = small design/ Big house = big(ger) design. Think small house and huge tree = no. Think small house and smaller trees and shrubs = yes. Scale and proportion fit in with balance. Making weight, size and shape fit proportionately into the landscape achieves a pleasing result.

Please pardon me if a lot of these design concepts have only brief descriptions and ideas. Design is a monstrous, complicated (fascinating!) procedure and if you feel you’d like to learn more, by all means, take a course at a local college or university. (I did all my courses via correspondence and didn’t even have to leave my house!). Study the numerous, excellently written design books on the market and in public libraries.

I hope by giving you an idea of the few elements that must be included in designing a landscape or garden, you can forge ahead and try making your garden gorgeous and pleasing to look at! I know that I plan on keeping as many concepts as possible in mind as I design the “perfect” garden!!

1 comment:

Christopher M said...

Great advice! Thanks for the feedback.